An Approach To Teaching Music
Music is a vast discipline. It covers the realms of historical research, performance on any of the known (and yet to be created) instruments and composition of new works for any of the above instruments or combinations thereof. The basis of all study in music can be brought back to four simple statements:
Hear IT; Play IT; Read IT; Write IT
Each of these four statements identifies a particular facet of music and music making.
At its most fundamental level music is a listening art. Before we can begin to play, we need to have some conception of the sound(s) that we want to make. The development of the ear so that it can imagine new sounds as well as existing sounds takes time and practice.
Sounds in this context means the combination of pitches and rhythms and instrumental qualities and dynamics and articulations that go to make up the whole range of musical events. Some definitions of these terms are in order.
Pitch: The highness or lowness of a note. Most pitches have specific names (or pitch class), such as C or Bb or F#. They also have what is known as height or octave. Those pitches without specific name can still be referred to by the number of vibrations per second needed to make them sound; this is called their frequency and is measured in Hertz (Hz) or cycles-per-second (cps).
Rhythm: The length of an individual note is known as its duration. Rhythm is the combination of durations. Durations can refer to sounding duration or the duration of a silence. All durations are relative to a given tempo or speed.
Instrumental quality: Every instrument has a unique combination of sounds which is known as its quality or timbre (tam-burr). Each note on an instrument is slightly different in quality, but the overall grouping of note qualities combine to give an instrument its characteristic sound. This is how we can tell the difference between a trumpet and a violin.
Dynamics: The loudness of a sound. We quantify this quality from extremely soft to extremely loud with about 5 or 6 other levels of loudness.
Articulations: When we play individual notes we can do so by making them last the entire length of the note's duration or a very short portion of the duration. We can play them so that they start loud and become immediately soft, or that they are just played louder than the surrounding passages. There are a wide variety of articulations available to each instrument.
Listening in the Large and the Small
Attention to the development of the musical ear must be present in all courses with an aim of teaching music. The development of the ear must be undertaken at two wholly different levels of musical sound, the macro-level (the Big Picture) and the micro-level (the small print).
he Big Picture
The macro-level of musical sound is where whole works of music are listened to. At this level we are interested in large-scale musical elements, particularly as they pertain to structure and interpretation. Some of these large scale elements are related to formal structures and some are related to instruments and combinations of instruments. It is important to be able to identify music as belonging to one of many different styles as this gives the listener a clue as to the use the music was ultimately made for. In most of today's popular music, this use is less easily defined, but can still be determined if listening and subsequent investigations are thorough.
the small print
The micro-level of musical sound is focused on the identification of musical events such as rhythmic sequences, intervals and chords. These studies focus on the quality and size of intervals (PU to P8), the types of scale or modes used (a scale/mode is a sequence of pitches forming a basic set of notes available within a piece of music or section within it), the quality of chords (this is an extension of the quality and size of intervals) and the time elapsed between successive attacks in rhythmic sequences. Through a study of these elements, the auralisation (aural imagination) of large scale works becomes much easier. Progressions or sequences of chords can also be studied at this level as a natural extension of both intervals and chord type - each chord in the sequence has its own quality and successive chords in the sequence are some interval away from the previous chord. Melody is also deserving of attention at this level as a natural extension of combination of intervals and rhythms.
Playing music, in the sense of making musical sounds with existing, found or newly created instruments, is seen to be the core activity in music. Making music requires us to make sounds. Making good music, requires us to make sounds that are perceived to be pleasant by those listening.
As an activity, music making needs to be preceded by music listening, acclimatising our ears to sounds that the collective society deem to be acceptable or to sounds that are considered to be more noise than pleasant. During playing we need to continuously be aware of the sounds we are making and how they fit in against the sounds of others who are playing.
In improvisational settings, this may also mean being aware of shifts in melodic centre (the sense of key) as well as shifts in scalar material (the sense of mode).
We should also seek to make new and interesting sounds. Such experiments in creation should be approached with full knowledge of the general response to any kind of new music, "Yes, but is it music?!?"
Some music making activities require us to read music that others have written down at some time in the past. An ability to read on an instrument is not the only sign of being a musician, merely one of many skills that an accomplished musician will have acquired over many years. Notation is often tricky when we first begin to read - we not only have to worry about where to put our fingers, but also how long do we bow or blow for each note we read. Adding to this is the difficulty beginners' face when moving from note to note - our best attempts to move quickly result in either
- not being quick enough or
- not getting the fingers down to play the right note.
In either case, we are left feeling that it is all too hard. Some might even give up the instrument because of the difficulties encountered.
Students should approach reading on a musical instrument in the same way that they do learning to read written language, slowly with simple rhythms and note combinations. As they become fluent in these combinations, new combinations are added so that the student increases the range of rhythmical and pitch combinations they can readily read. This process may take a number of years, but, then, so does learning to read any written language. To avoid unnecessary disappointment, students should constantly be reminded of the time it takes to learn to read any written language.
A useful skill is the ability to write down (transcribe) any musical phrase that the student hears or imagines. These musical phrases can be from existing works or indeed new ideas, the basis of composition. Initial attempts will obviously be less rewarding than later attempts. A graded approach to the writing down of musical phrases is also recommended to ensure that the student acquires the necessary skills in an ordered manner.
Simple rhythmical phrases similar to those encountered when beginning to read should form the basis of initial studies in transcribing musical ideas. Once these are mastered, adding simple intervals (2nds and 3rds) should be added next. As the student progresses in their reading ability, so they should be introduced to similar phrases to transcribe.
The long term result of this transcription training gives the student the ability to write down music they can imagine. This is not the only way in which to write down new music, but it is the most common approach.
Other students learn to create new music from a theoretical approach - the application of melody, and harmony skills to the creation of new music. This usually creates music that is technically satisfactory, but which may not necessarily be aesthetically satisfactory.
A better approach is to combine both theory and transcription as tools to be used to create a more unified, aesthetically pleasing music.
Some thoughts on developing a classroom framework for the teahcing of music regardless of your specific focus (General, Choir, Band, Orff, etc).